'Play Dead' Is a Film That Nearly Comes to Life

Uri Klein
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Francois Damiens (left) and Lucien Jean-Baptiste in 'Playing Dead.'Credit: Arnaud Borel
Uri Klein

Playing Dead Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé; written by Jean-Paul Salomé, Cecile Telerman, Jerome Tonnerre; with Francois Damiens, Geraldine Nakache, Lucien Jean-Baptiste, Jean-Marie Winling, Corentin Lobet

Jean-Paul Salomé’s “Playing Dead” (Je fais le mort) is an amiable suspense comedy that can be watched with a certain pleasure. All through the movie, however, I felt it had a good premise that could have been developed in a more successful way, and that is why I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly.

The hero of “Playing Dead” is an actor (Belgian comedian Francois Damiens) who once won a César Award for Most Promising Actor and starred in a couple of hit movies. Since then, however, his career has stalled because no one wants to work with him. He is a first-class pain in the ass who prepares for every part, even the most negligible, with a seriousness that drives all the other actors crazy. And if this were not bad enough, his name is Jean Renault, which sounds just like the name of screen icon Jean Reno.

Renault, who is divorced and lives off unemployment benefits, makes a living playing bit parts in forgettable television dramas and appearing in commercials for less-than-distinguished products. Then a new opportunity comes along: He is asked to play the corpses in reenactments of homicides, ordered by the French courts to ensure that the crime scene reports were accurate. Despite the humiliation involved, Renault has no choice but to take the job, and naturally he intends to prepare for the role of murder victim as seriously and thoroughly as if he were playing Hamlet.

He is sent to a town in the French Alps where a triple murder took place: Two brothers and a woman were killed. At the crime scene we meet Servaz (Corentin Lobet), the young man from the countryside who is charged with committing the murders. One look at his idiotic face is enough to determine that he could not have been responsible for the carnage. Overseeing the reenactment is a prosecutor named Noemie (Geraldine Nakache). Unfortunately, as soon as Renault meets her and before he learns who she is, he tries to hit on her. She takes an instant dislike to him, annoyed by his obsessive personality and the seriousness with which he regards his role as a corpse. But Renault’s obsession turns out to be efficient: His thoroughness in playing the two male victims exposes discrepancies in the police report, so that the submissive Servaz turns out to be only one of several suspects.

The premise, as I’ve said, is good, and could have yielded a successful suspense comedy – if only Salomé had developed it in a light, elegant way. Comedy and suspense are extremely hard to combine, since they tend to jeopardize each other, and only a few films have managed to mix them with success. “Playing Dead” is not one of them. The movie’s comic aspect – which of course has a romantic dimension – isn’t good enough despite Damiens’ and Nakache’s charming presence in the lead roles, while the suspense plot does not build up into an effective thriller. There are some good scenes and the Alpine backdrop adds a certain grandeur and uniqueness, but the movie as a whole is clumsy, and its plot too often stumbles.

Renault (right) prepares for the role as if he were playing Hamlet.Credit: Arnaud Borel

That’s a shame, because “Playing Dead” has more than a good premise; it has a good hero, which might have provided the basis for satire. An actor refusing to accept his own personal and professional failures while continuing to treat his artistic vocation too solemnly could make for a fine comic character with a certain pathetic tinge. Salomé, however, does not make good enough use of the possibilities his hero presents; if he had, the result might have been simultaneously amusing and touching.

Unlike other movies currently showing at Israeli theaters, “Playing Dead” is not tedious to watch. Still, it is one of those films that you can see right now – but could also just wait for it to be shown on television.